On 25 October, the Inter-Services Public Relations, the media wing of the Pakistan Army, went overboard. As it attempted to take the Indian Army Chief, General Bipin Rawat, down a peg or two, it issued a strongly worded statement making three claims. one, that Rawat is provoking war by over-hyping fire assaults as surgical strikes. Two, that he is providing the Indian political rulers with fodder for electioneering. And three, that Rawat has upended the professionalism of India’s military, turning it into a “rogue” force.
Last week, the Indian media, influenced by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spin doctors, on the eve of elections in the states of Maharashtra and Haryana, was advertising assaults by the Indian army on Pakistan as “surgical strike 3”. Rawat waded into this developing story, claiming that the fire assaults were on Pakistan’s terror launchpads, in which the “Pakistan Army and the terrorists have suffered heavy casualties.” He pegged the casualties at “six to ten” Pakistani soldiers and three terror camps destroyed.
Rawat’s claims prompted an otherwise sympathetic journalist of a quasi-nationalist website, The Print, to caution against the Indian Army aping the Pakistan Army’s “lying” public relations wing. He also drew a connection between the upcoming state polls and Rawat’s intervention—though he is not alone in seeing this.
Any attentive observer of Indo-Pak developments would clearly share two observations of the ISPR in its October statement. That the timing and promotion of the latest fire assaults by India suggest an election-related agenda. Secondly, that this is not professionally edifying for the Indian Army.
The ISPR goes a step further. It apprehends a personal motive for Rawat’s behavior, for it has implied that his political antenna are aligned to the prevailing political winds. The unstated suggestion is that he is auditioning for the coveted new position of Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the ramparts of the Red Fort.
On 20 October as well, India had conducted fire assaults on Pakistan. The ISPR’s response to them amounted to registering mild disappointment. The rhetoric suddenly was more strident, just a few days later. The possible provocation was Rawat’s reference that week to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) being controlled by terrorists. PoK has become one of the Army chief’s favoured themes. The last time he referred to it, he had boasted that only a word from the political masters has held the army back from seizing the area. Clearly, the chief has gotten under the skin of the ISPR, leading to the personal invective.
The plausible explanation for Rawat’s periodic forays in the media against Pakistan is the army’s new doctrine, released in an understated form late last year and lodged in a nondescript corner of its website. It dwells on hybrid war, characterising even peace time between India and Pakistan as a time of “hybrid war”. The military strategist Clausewitz had a dictum—war is politics by other means. Perhaps the General has interpreted this dictum to mean that politics is war by other means.
This logic would also view Pakistan’s proxy war on India as a kind of hybrid war, which must get from India an appropriate response. The shift from strategic restraint to strategic proactivist in the Modi regime enables the Army to use peacetime to condition, deter and degrade Pakistan. Psychological warfare or information operations constitute the main line of operations in peace time.
The chief’s utterances on Pakistan could, at a stretch, be rationalised, but it is not conceivable that Rawat takes himself seriously on PoK. The assumption that the Indian Army can militarily take over the PoK is easy to concede. Besides its reserves for the northern theater, it has additional forces available—having just put the mountain strike corps through its paces in the eastern sector. It also has the requisite airlift, thanks to the easier foreign military sales route with the United States, to bring integrated battle groups from the China front to bear down on the Pakistan side. At Pathankot it has a division close at hand too.
To keep Pakistan from reinforcing PoK, India can credibly threaten a reprise of 1965, when it threatened Lahore by opening up the Punjab front in response to Pakistan’s armoured thrust towards Akhnoor. Through test bed exercises this year, the Indian Army created two integrated battle groups in the border sector of southern Jammu and Kashmir. This was presumably poised to prise off Pakistan’s Sialkot bulge, assuming the element of surprise is in India’s favour.
However, the moot question is not whether India can bite a chunk off the PoK. The question is whether it can digest it thereafter. Presumably, Indian security forces find Kashmiri stone throwers a problem even after countering insurgency there for thirty long years. So much so that an unprecedented three-month lock down has to be imposed on the Valley after all these years of counter-insurgency. Then it is perhaps safe to surmise that PoK will prove indigestible.
India noted at the non-alignment forum recently that Pakistan is the “contemporary epicenter of terrorism”. Extrapolating from what the backlash of terrorism did to the forces of the western coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq, it can be inferred that PoK will be inhospitable to Indian forces, necessitating even reeling them back. In the end this will buoy the terrorists; quite like the Hezbollah’s claims of “victory” (no matter how pyrrhic) when the Israelis departed in 2006 from their venture in southern Lebanon.
Consequently, as in 1965, a war initially confined to PoK may escalate southwards, horizontally along the border. India came close to doing so on the two other occasions when it fought on the western front, in 1947-48 and in the Kargil war.
A recent report on denial of access to the relevant papers regarding the first war with Pakistan (which cover India’s deliberations over attacking mainland Pakistan in 1947-48) profess evidence. At the 20th anniversary of Kargil, the army chief at the time General Ved Malik had revealed that he had remonstrated with prime minister of the day Atal Bihari Vajpayee against openly saying that India would limit the war to Kargil sector. The concern was that if and when it became necessary to expand the war due to possible difficulties in Kargil, India might have foreclosed its option to escalate.
The Army may indeed have limited objectives in PoK, restricted to shallow objectives along the Line of Control (LoC). These could be enemy posts that are so located as to provide infiltration and observation advantages to Pakistan. The Army’s intent may be to takeover these in the next surgical strike.
Since the other forms of surgical strike—raids and aerial strikes—have already been attempted, the next trial could be of ‘salami slicing’ on the LoC. The aerial strike escalated as Pakistan struck back. It is perhaps also ready to beat back raids. Missiles were prepared in the aftermath but they do not provide the necessary asymmetry, since Pakistan is no push over in that field. That leaves the option of land operations: something more than a raid but less than invasion.
The Army’s repeated references to PoK could be aimed at not only preparing the domestic space for a border skirmish, but also to spell out to Pakistan that the intention is not to have a border war per se. If Pakistan counter-attacks succeed elsewhere, there is always scope for escalation.
Whatever the case, it is not easy to foresee a stable redrawn LoC. If a ‘mere’ lock-down brought the Security Council together for an “informal” behind-closed-doors session on Kashmir for the first time in fifty years, a border war that teeters on the escalation ladder to nuclear could entail return to where the Council was in the late fifties—back to talking mediation on the Kashmir conflict. An operational gain may end up a strategic disaster.
Rawat perhaps knows better. The din on Pakistan’s villainy may just be information war. Yet, if this is so, the ISPR’s third accusation starts ringing true. It is that he is compromising Indian military professionalism, specifically its advisory function. The fallout of the chief’s bellicosity is primarily to condition Indians into state of war mania, creating the potential to spiral into all-out war during the next crisis between India and Pakistan.
Finally, if Rawat is convinced by the rhetoric he is spouting, then he is misleading his political masters on how advisable a PoK caper is at this juncture. The defence minister Rajnath Singh and the minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office, Jitendra Singh (who belongs to Jammu) have already bought that line. Even the prime minister, in his Diwali foray to Rajauri on the border, appeared persuaded.
The propensity of national security honcho Ajit Doval and his boss Modi for unbridled haste in action is well known. Remember demonetisation, surgical strikes, Balakot etc. This indicates they may lend an ear. A repeat of Ranjit Singh Dyal’s late August 1965 taking-over of Haji Pir is of course possible if the Modi-Doval duo is willing to risk (nuclear) war. They ran that risk this August when they backed home minister Amit Shah’s constitutional shenanigans over Kashmir, which does not portend war avoidance, rather its opposite. Having chimed up on PoK so many times, India has laid for itself a commitment trap.
Finally, is the ISPR right on the army chief’s personal motives? The thought cannot be disregarded in light of how politically useful a grandstanding army chief is to a government that is strong on defence. The BJP has throughout its tenure capitalised on military action. The surgical strikes and the aerial strike figured extensively in its electoral campaigns.
The danger is of ambitious generals catering to a party’s political needs, by lending the credibility of their uniform and office to political aims. It is best left to the general to introspect. Perhaps it might be best if he is kicked upstairs into a CDS’ chair. As a general without an army he may serve his political masters best without compromising the army.
Of course, the ISPR must be called out for what it is up to: It is an equal participant in the grey zone warfare of today. Verbal jousts over the PoK are information operations run from both sides. Both sides have read the 2014 book by the British journalist Peter Pomerantsev, This is Not Propaganda. The ISPR is trying to provoke a loss of confidence in the Indian Army chief. Such (dis)information campaigns partially approximate the truth. Being clear-eyed about the ISPR’s motives, it must be acknowledged that it has unfortunately got what is going on somewhat right.
Ali Ahmed is visiting professor at the Nelson Mandela Centre for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Jamia Millia Islamia. Views are personal.